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Public Statements

Supporting the Designation of a Year of Languages

Location: Washington, DC

SUPPORTING THE DESIGNATION OF A YEAR OF LANGUAGES -- (House of Representatives - March 08, 2005)


Mr. HOLT. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to speak at some length about this because it is really so important to our country. I would like to thank the leadership for allowing us to bring up this resolution which expresses the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the study of languages and supporting the designation of a Year of Languages. I would like to thank the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Tiberi) for co-sponsoring the resolution.

Under the guidance and guardianship of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2005 will be celebrated as the Year of Languages in the United States. These celebrations will take place in a variety of settings including elementary and secondary schools and post-secondary institutions as well as at events at local and State and national levels across America. It is an opportunity to focus on America's need to focus our attention on the social and economic benefits of studying other languages and cultures around the world and on the importance of these studies to our national security.

This initiative will seek to influence the full range of language programs in the United States schools and communities, and I think the campaign plan will capture the attention and, I hope, the interest of all Americans with the involvement and assistance of teachers, administrators and local officials. If the United States is going to continue to play an important role in the global economy and in the business world and to be the leader politically, and I would say militarily, we must be able to understand and communicate with other cultures around the world.

According to a 2002 survey from Healthy Companies International, the average number of languages spoken by American business executives is less than one and a half, compared with say 3.9 languages spoken on average by business executives in the Netherlands.

The goals of the Year of Languages are four: To expand the public's understanding of the role of language in all aspects of people's lives, in society and in the future of human and international relations; to promote the importance of language learning and language proficiency, urging every American to commit to learning other languages; to build awareness of the diversity of languages that now play an integral part of everyday life in our country; and to promote the formation of a national task force to study and strengthen national policy on language learning and teaching and to make recommendations to strengthen U.S. policy.

Some members of the public and the media might question why, with our unparalleled military and economic power, Americans need to learn languages of the world. Does not everyone speak English anyway? So they say.

Well, the reasons to launch a government-wide effort to build a pipeline of professionals with advanced foreign language capabilities, I think, should be self-evident to Americans. Let me quote a statement. "The United States today carries new responsibilities in many quarters of the globe, and we are at a serious disadvantage because of the difficulty of finding persons who can deal with the foreign language problems."

Those are not my words. Those are the words of former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, spoken in 1953. What was true in the post-World War II world of 1953 is even more true in the post-9/11 world of 2004 and 2005.

Our national deficiency in the languages and cultures of critical areas around the world is compromising American security interests. And in addition to diminishing our opportunities economically and culturally, the deficiency is making our troops overseas more vulnerable and, I would argue, the American people less safer.

A few years after John Foster Dulles spoke these words, Russia launched a small beeping sphere above the Earth known as Sputnik. Americans were shocked, even fearful, and Congress, saying America would never be caught flat-footed again, passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 that did much to overhaul the teaching of science and math and also provided some assistance for the study of languages.

September 11, 2001, was also a wake-up call for us. If we fail to address one of the most serious problems facing our Nation, we will not have risen to the challenge of September 11, 2001. The Ð9/11 joint inquiry reported a year and a half ago that our intelligence community is at 30 percent readiness in languages critical to national security. A State Department commissioned report from a year ago found that our government has only 54, or at that time, only 54 genuine Arabic speakers working in the entire Foreign Service.

A year or so ago, I asked David Kay, the former head of the Iraq Survey Group, how many on his 1,400 member team spoke Arabic and understood the technology of weapons of mass destruction. Well, he said he could count on the fingers of one hand.

I posed similar questions to some members of the special forces who had been combing the mountains of Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden. I asked how many of them spoke Pushtu. Well, they responded, they had picked some up during the year they had been there. Although our special forces represent some of the best trained forces in the world, we are clearly not giving them the skills they need. If Osama bin Laden is truly American public enemy number one, how do we expect to track him down if we cannot speak the languages of the people who are hiding him?

As Dr. David Chu, the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense, said in his opening remarks at the National Language Conference last June, we need "a permanent change in our approach to the peoples and cultures of the rest of the world."

Our need to understand the world is a prime national security concern.

He went on, "National security concerns have taken us from the streets of Manhattan to the mountains of Afghanistan and to the resort cities of Bali. Our economy has brought workers here to America and sent jobs to 100 countries around the world. Our health is affected by conditions and events in China, Britain, Africa and South America. Criminal cartels and corrupt officials hundreds of miles beyond our borders have an immediate impact on our streets, in our schools and our homes. Within one generation, we have become integrated into the world as never before." Those are the words of the Undersecretary of Defense Dr. Chu.

While the Defense Department, the State Department and our intelligence agencies have recently turned their attention to the language problem, their approach remains focused on immediate needs. They are stepping up recruitment efforts, and they are expanding the language education programs in Monterey, here in Washington and elsewhere, and these are promising and necessary changes, but they only scratch the surface.

They do not deal with the problem of the pool. From what pool will they be recruiting the linguists for the Defense Department, the State Department, our intelligence agencies?

The root of the problem, I think, is in our schools. If we are to address adequately the language shortage in the Federal Government, we have to look past the issues of immediate recruitment and foreign language training. Federal language schools are building on a poor language foundation. We must design and implement a Federal language strategy that begins at the earliest years of education and continues through college.

Mr. Speaker, consider the following facts: Al Qaeda and similar terrorist elements operate in over 75 countries where hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken. However, 99 percent of American high school, college and university programs concentrate on a few, mostly European, languages. According to figures from a couple of years ago, 2002, more college students study Ancient Greek than Arabic, Korean, Persian, Pashto and a number of other languages put together. Nothing against Ancient Greek, but certainly it is an important area of study, but the shortage of training in Arabic, Korean, Persian, Pashto and a long list of others should be cause for concern.

Out of 1.3 million graduates at America's colleges and universities, 17, two years ago, earned a bachelor's or advanced degree in Arabic, according to the Department of Education, 17. In Chinese, the language spoken by billions of people, 217 degrees were granted, according to the Department of Education. That is compared with almost 3,000 in French, more than 8,000 in Spanish. We need to improve not just the number of degrees but the quality of education throughout the educational years.

In addition to the resolution before us today, I have introduced the National Security Language Act, legislation that would expand the Federal investment in education in foreign languages of critical need. It would provide Federal incentives for high school students to study languages in college. It would give universities resources to expand language programs overseas, and it would identify Americans with preexisting language abilities for recruitment.

The bill would create an international flagship language initiative that would provide Federal grants to specific universities and colleges to establish high-quality, intensive, in-country language study programs in countries around the world. It would establish a science and technology advanced language grant program for institutions of higher education to establish programs that encourage students to develop foreign language proficiency as they study science, engineering and other technologies.

The bill would provide loan forgiveness of up to $10,000 for undergraduate students in foreign languages. It would encourage early northern language studies by establishing grants for foreign language partnerships between local districts and foreign language departments at institutes of higher education.

It would create a commission of national study of foreign language heritage and a Federal marketing campaign to identify heritage communities with native speakers of critical foreign languages and market to them the need to pursue the study of languages.

I believe the next step then would be to increase the supply line of students who have strong language skills, and this can only be done through the K-through-12 system. The Council for Basic Education recently released a study. Foreign language instruction experienced decreases in instruction time as reported by principals, particularly in high minority schools. Whereas in low minority schools, 9 percent of the principals reported a decrease in time spent studying languages; 11 percent reported an increase. But in minority schools, schools with a high proportion of minority students, there was a 23 percent decline in instructional time, with only 9 percent of the principals reporting an increase. In other words, this is also a matter of our educational divide in this country.

In addition to developing a lifelong ability to communicate with people from other countries and backgrounds, other benefits include improved overall school performance and improved problem solving skills. Students of foreign languages tend to score higher on standardized tests. And results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test show that students who had studied a foreign language for 4 or more years outscored other students on the verbal and math portions of the test. This is according to the college board SAT as reported in 2003.

Knowledge of a second language also seems to coincide with high academic achievement. It is not just whether a school has a rigorous program, although certainly that helps, but time spent in studying foreign languages means that students earn better grades in college and are less likely to drop out.

There are all sorts of reasons to study foreign languages, and studying the language, learning a language at any age is beneficial. Some studies have shown that the brain is more open to linguistic development in the early years. I have certainly seen that in my own grandchildren and children. When children have an early start to a long sequence of language instruction that continues through high school and college, they will be, studies have shown, able to achieve levels of fluency in that and to pick up other languages. Nevertheless, older children and adults can still be successful at learning a second or third or fourth language. Although the level of attainment is a little more predictable for us older learners, it is still worth doing.

In 1958, as I said, Congress responded to Sputnik by passing the National Defense Education Act. It focused on science and engineering and, to some extent, on languages. Immediately after September 11, Americans found themselves once again facing a Sputnik moment. Americans realized that we were caught flatfooted and unprepared to deal with not just hatred around the world but hatred that was turned into vicious attacks.

We need a national commitment to languages on a scale of the NDEA, the National Defense Education Act, and Mr. Speaker, I think today's resolution that will, among other things, recognize 2005 as the year of languages is a start toward making that commitment.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to reserve the balance of my time.


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